Sex workers speak out

'Even one individual turning away is too many': the devastating effects of sex work stigma

Part 7 of a series
Photo: David Stanley

The experience of stigma and estrangement from friends and family is common among sex workers. Support from people around them, as well as non-profit organizations, police, and other government agencies, can make a big difference for sex workers’ health and safety. This is the seventh installment of a series featuring the voices of sex workers.

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Lisa, British Columbia

I am a 51-year-old Métis woman, mother of two daughters, sister to two brothers, daughter to two living parents, cousin and niece and more to many relatives.

In 2004-05, a series of events happened in my life, and I decided to take my 14 years of experience in a rewarding and lucrative career as a registered massage therapist and become an indoor, independent sex worker. That turned out to be a good decision, and for the last 12 years I have provided nurturing, sensual, sexual, inviting, and pampering appointments to a small, loyal, and lovely population of people (mostly professional men, but I am preparing to serve women after noticing an increased demand).

Sex work after Harper For two years, sex workers have faced tough laws, implemented by the Harper Conservatives in defiance of a Supreme Court directive not to impose dangerous conditions on prostitution. The new laws criminalize those who purchase sex (clients), those who communicate in a public place in order to sell sex (sex workers or third parties), those who carry an advertisement for sexual services (e.g., newspaper, website), and those who gain material benefit from sex work (e.g., security, drivers, receptionists, agency owners). Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has yet to address the unconstitutional nature of the legislation.

Sex work has brought me opportunities. I have been able to afford university fees for the past nine years and am currently a doctoral student. My dissertation will include a one-woman theatre piece that will speak to my experiences with regard to the stigma and moral panic that shroud sex work and sex workers, concealing who we really are and what we really do.

My clients are my friends and my champions. When I entered the sex work field, I was looking not only to make a living, but for companionship, mentoring, and protection. My clients have consistently provided all of that and more over the years.

Not everyone saw my move into sex work as a positive development, and the stigma has had dire impacts on my life. In April 2005, I lost custody of my then eight-year-old daughter based on the belief of the children’s authority that sex work provided an unsafe environment for her to grow up in. This has caused untold hardship and sorrow ever since for both my daughter and me.

How those laws are enforced, though, appears to depend on where you live in Canada.

While some family members and friends supported my decision to go into sex work, others were judgmental and punishing. In truth, even one individual turning away is too many. The sense of utter powerlessness and helplessness that I felt in the face of their fear and ignorance was crushing.

The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act presumes I am either a victim in need of rescuing, or an adult who has made a free choice to work in sex work but whose work must be abolished, whose right to advertise properly with third parties must be prohibited, and whose work alongside other sex workers must be made against the law. How those laws are enforced, though, appears to depend on where you live in Canada.

Here in Victoria, B.C., the police department seems sympathetic and supportive of sex workers. I have never encountered the police when I am working. My clients have not been deterred from seeking appointments with me as far as I can tell, but the restrictive and draconian laws that the Conservative Party put into place in 2014 have made it more challenging for me to advertise.

I ask the current government to envision a world in which women are truly seen, heard, loved, respected, and protected. Where my Indigenous sisters are not continually sexually assaulted and murdered. Where my community of sex workers is not rendered disposable. Where women who decide to be sex workers are not stigmatized and discriminated against. Where my worth as a mother is not measured by how I support myself financially. I am hoping that our current government can see such a world. I can.

Toni, Victoria, British Columbia

I have been in the sex industry since 1999, and I’m 48 now. I started the work after my divorce, when it was too hard to manage the household and two kids on my own. I first worked at an agency in Vancouver and then in Victoria, but when the Victoria agency was shut down by police, I started working outdoors more often.

Work has changed a lot in the last two years. I work off my phone mostly for my regulars because I prefer working indoors and not having to go out at night, although I still do so if I need a little entertainment or the phone’s not ringing. I spent 12 weeks in hospital after getting sucker punched on the street by a jealous worker five years ago, which broke my jaw, so I haven’t wanted to work outdoors much since then.

It’s not a Pretty Woman situation and it can harden you.

You would think there’d be more facilities for girls to work indoors, since everyone is always talking about protecting us workers. Agencies can be good, but they take a big cut of what you earn — sometimes more than 50 per cent. I work out of my apartment every now and then with a few of my regulars, but mostly I try not to because my home is my safe zone.

Before I got into the industry, I did other kinds of straight jobs, including managing some businesses. But sex work has allowed me to be self-employed, pick my own hours, and make more money for fewer hours worked. It’s not a Pretty Woman situation and it can harden you, but that’s not unique to sex work or any work where you need to engage with people all of the time.

The new sex work laws have an impact on our capacity to support ourselves and to be safe, but they haven’t necessarily had an impact on the number of clients on the street. It’s always been out of sight, out of mind, so people who work on the street and our clients know how to avoid police and other detection. But it can be harder to find business sometimes.

They’re like a surrogate mother for us girls. Most of us don’t have family.

The new laws have made clients afraid, however, and they are much more uneasy about picking me up, because they say they will get charged by police if they are pulled over more than once. Usually I just hop into the car with a client and we go around the block, and if I don’t like the vibe, I get out. It would be better to be able to assess things before I get in the car but you can’t do that with the way the laws are because the clients don’t want to get pulled over. I’ve been in vehicles pulled over by police where they tell me to leave but keep the guy there.

The clients are mostly normal people. There are a few bad dates who give clients a bad name. There are a lot of workers who never report their bad dates to police, and these girls prefer to report them to Peers Victoria Resource Society (a sex-worker-founded non-profit that does street outreach). Sex work support groups are really important to our community. They’re like a surrogate mother for us girls. Most of us don’t have family. Five years ago, I was so unhealthy, addicted, no housing, struggling along with a broken jaw on the street. I’d been out there for two weeks with the broken jaw when I met Peers. They put me in a hotel, got me something to eat, and helped me find an apartment, where I’ve been living for three years now.

Those of us who work in the industry know what we need in terms of help. For those of us working outdoors, I would love a big house where workers can eat and sleep and live but not bring clients, with a separate rooming house to bring clients to. It would function similarly to an in-call agency but be more of a non-profit.

We need plain-clothed officers who are willing to focus on violence against us.

I wish our relationship with the police was more like having a liaison to talk with comfortably. As it is, you never know what you’re going to get with the police. Some are okay, but others are quite rude and say horrible stuff to us. In Victoria, police are not monitoring us too much, but they do make their presence known, and there have been nights where we’ve seen a police car on the street at least every 15 minutes.

This kind of intimidation definitely deters people from stopping in certain areas. Some clients are even starting to walk up to book the date now, to avoid risking getting pulled over. This kind of fear with the police isn’t good for any of us. I know the police think they’re helping us. But they’re not. They’re infringing on our work and our capacity to support ourselves.

Decriminalization of our work and our lives is urgent. But this won’t address the antagonism with police when they continue to harass us for other things, so these relationships need additional work. We need plain-clothed officers who are willing to focus on violence against us, who aren’t scaring away the clients and who will actually talk with us. As long as police have a mandate to arrest clients, many of us won’t report our bad dates to them. Even if sex workers aren’t criminalized, some of us have drug addictions, or warrants out for our arrests, or are worried we could lose our kids if someone knows the work we do. We need more trust with the police.

Troy, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

I was introduced to sex work on the top floor of an apartment building overlooking the Vancouver skyline. And it was beautiful. But those of us in the room recognized that the feeling stopped at the apartment door. By the time we’d completed our 36-hour training in sensual bodywork, the instructors made it clear to us that the rest of the world would now view us as whores.

Once we walked out that door, we were seen as sexual outlaws, considered by friends and family as either immoral people in it for the money, or victims of a cruel patriarchy who were in need of rescuing. The fact that we were intelligent people who had decided to do this work was a truth the law ignored.

A vile hybrid in need of prosecution to protect ourselves from ourselves.

The Professional Sensual Massage certificate program opened me up to the concept of a loving presence. The vital nature of sensual touch and tantric exercises would help us connect deeply with clients so they could unlock their sensual selves in sexual, spiritual and light-hearted ways. We learned how to bring the gift of pleasure in a sacred and respectful way, and through guided discussions examined our own sexual biases, exploring how shame and guilt hold people back in many ways.

But Canada’s government didn’t see things that way. Under the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, people like me were deluded victims needing to be rescued from ourselves. While still as vague and undefined as the laws that had been in place before a 2013 Supreme Court of Canada ruling struck them down as unconstitutional, the new laws made it illegal for the first time in Canadian history for anyone to purchase my services. Contending that everyone in sex work is a victim and that victims shouldn’t be blamed for their actions, our government had “solved” the problem of prostitution by criminalizing everyone around me.

But I was not a victim, and neither were my fellow students. The instructors were not sex traffickers luring us into a life of abuse and slavery. Yet the government’s adoption of a version of the so-called Nordic regime, which criminalizes the buyers of sexual services, had made it so. We were not healers and sensualists. We were voiceless and powerless. We had to hide our faces and operate from the shadows.

In response to this increased repression, a group of us created an online sex-positive directory to highlight the value of our work and treat the profession with the respect we believed it deserved. We hoped this project would give sex workers across the province an alternative to online advertising, which was declining.

I can be a sex worker, but no one can legally carry my ad.

The reaction to our project from our brothers and sisters in the industry was enthusiastic but tempered with much caution. We were urged to consult a lawyer, who said such a website would likely land us in jail because we were advertising sex work. And the fact that we were also sex workers made us both victims and predators, a vile hybrid in need of prosecution to protect ourselves from ourselves. By launching a sex-positive directory, we would be placing our slutty necks on the proverbial legal chopping block under Canada’s new laws.

So, how have these new laws affected my life? I can be a sex worker, but no one can legally carry my ad. I can practice sensual massage, but all my clients are sexual predators in the eyes of the law. I am free to create a space for my practice, but my landlord may face prosecution and I may find myself evicted and homeless “for my own good.” And since my practice is in a small resort town on the west coast of Vancouver Island, most online advertising options that cater to larger communities are of little use to me.

The objective of the new laws is to force me from this supposedly loathsome profession. But that’s not what will happen. I practice this profession of my own free will. I am neither victim nor predator, and I will not succumb to fear, guilt or shame. And I will continue to fight for sex workers’ rights, for our right to practice and advertise our services freely and openly without fear of prosecution.

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